Ford Motor Co. is working with multiple partners on its sustainability goals, testing various biocarbon materials to mix with plastic for molded parts, according to Deborah Mielewski, the company's senior technical leader of sustainable and advanced materials.
As an example, Ford was able to achieve a half-pound of weight reduction per vehicle using chaff — the dried skin of a coffee bean that comes off during the roasting process — from McDonald's restaurants as a biocarbon filler.
The chaff is heated, then mixed with plastics and other additives to create the pellets that are molded into vehicle part.
It meets "every one of our requirements, gives us better heat deflection, better life cycle and weight reduction," Mielewski said.
That was one of the new ideas in sustainability in the spotlight at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Annual Composites Conference and Exhibition, a virtual event held Sept. 9-11.
Ford is also testing rice hulls, another food industrial byproduct, as a filler in products like wiring channels, she said.
"These parts are not glamorous," Mielewski said in a keynote address. "But look at the impact. … Rice hulls have low water absorption, they have great fire resistance."
"Rice feeds half the world, so rice hulls are in excess," she added. "They are commonly burned in the field providing no benefit. … Why aren't we using these rice hulls in a circular economy?"
Natural materials, Mielewski said, "all have a unique appearance and special properties, like good UV stability. They all have lower density."
"I think there's a lot of promise here," she said, adding that there are many opportunities for natural fillers in molded parts.
For example, Ford's new 2021 Explorer has about 12,000 plastic parts out of 35,000, Mielewski said. Although alternative materials still have not found their way into some applications.
"Impact is still a challenge, and that's why we haven't implemented on a class-A surface," she said.
In its sustainability efforts, Ford is also using post-consumer nylon for under-the-hood components and is testing cleaning and reformulating waste powder from 3D printing for use in injection molding, Mielewski said.
"We're substituting the nylon 12 from SLS [selective laser sintering], printing that waste in a nylon 6/6 application," she said. "We're very close to being able to use that waste powder instead of putting it into a landfill."
Mielewski said Ford is also doing its part to help clean up ocean plastics by working with DSM Engineering Materials, which is collecting nylon 6 fishing nets to make a recycled-content material that the automaker molds into clips and channels.
"We have to do something about it," she said. "Even though we're not contributing in the automotive industry to ocean plastic."